Post reality politics. Where everything is made up, and the points don’t matter. It’s about the spectacle. In this world, sporting leagues are valuable political tools.
Play College Football!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) August 10, 2020
Post Reality Politics & Sports
Entertainment is the goal of both sports and post-reality politics. As long as one can focus on keeping their team happy, the actual plans and results do not matter. Policies are irrelevant. Theatre is the goal. Hundreds of thousands of dead people can become less important than a football player kneeling. Major social problems are secondary because a singer made a naughty song.
The sports world is also theatre. When entertainment is the goal of both politicians and sports leagues, the crossover is natural. The National Basketball Association (NBA) has rolled with it. The National Hockey League (NHL) is being used. The response from the sporting world to post-reality politics has been mixed.
In a post-reality world, sports are a natural platform for politics. Sports leagues wishing to avoid controversy must figure this out.
Not the Facts Ma’am
The bad news is boring. It can be glossed over if something is shiny enough. Consider what can be ignored:
Over 5 million Americans have contracted COVID. Americans aren’t allowed into Canada. Unidentified government officials are pulling people into unmarked cars in Portland. Over one million jobless claims per week. Loss of respect and influence across the world. Attacks on voting rights. The worst quarterly Gross Domestic Product decline in recorded history. Open racism, misogyny, hatred. There may not even be college football this year.
Voting for Trump is a vote for the theatre. In a fact-based world, these things should be unpopular. While there is widespread opposition, Gallup polling has Trump’s approval rating at roughly 40%. That is hundreds of millions of people who support this. Support, in this case, is not attached to policy goals. There aren’t any.
The rules of conservatism or liberalism don’t apply here. This style of government has no home in traditional political thought. There is no goal to be achieved, other than holding power for the sake and benefits of holding power. Ignore complex policy goals. It’s what is shiny at the moment. What keeps the base together.
Bread and Circuses
Sports and politics have long been mixed. It is most apparent at the international level. Examples include the World Cup, the Olympics, Cold War events like the 1972 Summit Series, the Miracle On Ice, and so many more. Even an under-20 soccer game between Chile and Argentina resulted in a brawl with the police in Toronto, Ontario. These are all blatantly political events. The political aspect arguably makes it more enjoyable. It is national pride at stake; being apolitical is impossible.
National sports leagues are part of the same circus. The spotlight is there, wanted or not. While not as obvious as the Dutch fans yelling, “I want my bike back” against team Germany in soccer, domestic leagues aren’t immune to politics.
Politicians love to show up at major games. Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper often talked about writing a book on hockey while in office. George W. Bush owned the Texas Rangers. There is a political advantage to grabbing the spotlight from sports.
They’re natural partners. With a large number of people focused on a topic, it’s an easy win for politics. It is an old alliance, and it plays out in many ways. Patriotic displays like singing the national anthem first appeared in response to World War 1. Per Mental Floss, the anthem playing died down. But quickly came back.
Anthems being played at games is a relic of the World War era.
During World War II, baseball games again became venues for large-scale displays of patriotism, and technological advances in public address systems allowed songs to be played without a band. “The Star-Spangled Banner” was played before games throughout the course of the war, and by the time the war was over, the pregame singing of the national anthem had become cemented as a baseball ritual, after which it spread to other sports. (From above link.)
During World War II and the subsequent Cold War era, the motivation for playing the anthem is obvious. Building national pride was a major goal for keeping public support of the war effort. As time went on, the world around sports has changed.
The games stayed the same. World War II came and went, as did the Cold War. The political remnant that was anthems remained. Over time, its presence at games became entrenched. Militarized aspects were slowly added to the spectacle. It was a mutually beneficial relationship.
Pay to Play
The anthem becoming the norm was just the first step. As flyovers, colour guards, and other militarized elements were added, what started with anthems grew to a larger spectacle. The military paid the NFL millions to have their patriotic displays and troop tributes at games.
It shouldn’t have been surprising that protest would eventually happen. The political element has been there for ages. Unlike the normal political world, however, the messaging was tightly controlled. Until now.
Breaking the Control
The unraveling of message control started with the NFL. Colin Kapernick started by just not standing during the game. As he tells it, it was something he’d done quite a few times before it got noticed. In August 2016, Kaepernick said he sat because the country “oppresses black people and people of colour.” Soon the negative headlines started.
Kneeling seemed to be a more respectful idea than sitting. As the headlines gathered, ex-Green Beret (and former Green Bay Packer) Nate Boyer suggested kneeling instead. If the idea was a respectful way to calm the waters while maintaining the protest, it did not work. Instead, it cracked the NFL’s monopoly on messaging and slowly swept across the sports, cultural, and political worlds.
The Spotlight is the Message
Sports are in the political world. Especially with post-reality politics, where attention-grabbing is all that matters. The sporting world is a tool for politicians to control the debate.
Are thousands dying? Let’s get angry about rap music. The Mueller Report? Well, what about respecting the flag! Anything can be said as long as it is entertaining and the folks at home don’t get bored. If something becomes an issue, move on. Sports and entertainment are an easy circus to use when policy goals don’t matter.
When players object to being used, it changes how the spotlight can be used. Ben Shapiro recently complained that “sports have been ruined for him.” Conservative voice, The National Review, recently argued that the NFL risks losing fans over their current politics.
This isn’t sports fans giving up their prime source of entertainment. These are fans of a post-reality world giving up distractions.
Politics are Entertainment, Entertainment is Political
In the era of post-reality politics, the entertainment factor is key. Donald Trump has long been known to discuss ratings for a reason. Ratings in the post-factual era are more important than anything. Provided one can hold attention, they can hold power.
Post-reality politics are not uniquely American. Rob Ford, Jair Bolsonaro, Boris Johnson, there are many post-reality politicians. Ignoring facts is convenient. Donald Trump has taken this to a new level, but that’s what America does. It takes something established to its logical extreme. As Jackson Pollock was to the art world, Trump is to politics.
Traditional rules don’t matter. The healthcare debate, immigration, foreign alliances? These can all be ignored as long as it’s fun to watch. Facts do not matter. Sports leagues must understand how the spotlight is being used, or else they’ll be nothing more than tools of politicians.
Main Photo from Getty.